In a big blow to opposition unity, Mamata Banerjee, chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC), has announced she will fight the 2024 election “alone with the people’s support”. A loss in by-polls in home state Bengal, a dismal performance in the northeastern states and the failure to emerge as the nucleus of the opposition seems to have driven this decision.
After the shock loss in the Sagardighi by-poll by 23,000 votes, Mamata accused the BJP, CPM and Congress of stitching together an “unholy alliance” to defeat the TMC, resulting in a trust deficit situation.
In its 25th foundation year, Trinamool now aims to spread its wings outside Bengal and take a shot at becoming the principal opposition party at the centre, taking advantage of a weakened Congress. It is the fourth largest party in Lok Sabha and third largest in Rajya Sabha. It has the third highest number of MLAs in India.
West Bengal sends the third highest number of MPs to Parliament (42) after UP (80) and Maharashtra (48). A sweep in Bengal, the party hopes, will put it in pole position in an opposition-led government, if the BJP falls short of the magical figure.
The TMC has had a remarkable stint ruling Bengal for 13 out of the 25 years of its existence. It has emerged as the real Congress in the state. After the BJP made significant inroads in the state in the 2019 general elections, reducing TMC’s tally from 34 to 22, Mamata’s party recorded a stupendous 3/4th majority victory in the 2021 state election, crushing the BJP.
The TMC hopes to outdo itself in the 2024 general election. After its 2021 victory, the party launched its national ambitions, chalking out an expansion plan in small and northeastern states. That plan has had limited success.
Its high-pitch campaign in Goa in 2022 – “Gonychi Navi Sakal” – yielded not even a single seat. In Tripura, which has more than 60 per cent Bengali speaking population, the party’s vote share (0.88%) was lower than the None Of The Above option or NOTA (1.36%). Despite taking over the entire Congress party in Meghalaya, it failed to better the Congress tally of five and its 14 per cent vote share.
Challenges galore, party banking on luck?
The TMC doesn’t have any presence in any other state except for a few northeastern states that do not send many MPs to parliament. It doesn’t appear to be building organisational blocks like AAP in states outside Bengal or finalising alliances with smaller parties. The TMC doesn’t have cadre, leaders, voters or supporters outside Bengal. In 2019, 99.8% of the votes for Trinamool came from Bengal.
The TMC is primarily banking on poaching leaders from the Congress or other parties. Leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Shatrughan Sinha, Luizinho Falerio, Mukul Sangma, Majid Menon are well past their prime. Inorganic growth has its limitations as new joiners do not share the same ideology and are seen as opportunistic.
Mamata doesn’t enjoy significant appeal outside Bengal; coming from a non-Hindi background hinders her expansion plans in other states. Neither is she the tallest woman leader in the country – the party hasn’t made this projection yet. The implementation of the Bengal model of development all over the country is questionable.
AAP today has a larger national presence than the TMC. Most regional parties harbour prime ministerial ambitions and are unlikely to let Didi call the shots if the BJP falls short of the magic figure. K Chandrasekhar Rao or KCR has launched a national party and is making every effort to emerge as the pivot of a non-Congress, non-BJP front, giving stiff competition to Mamata.
Mamata’s relationship with the Gandhis has soured with the poaching of Congress MLAs. Other regional parties too are wary of Trinamool’s national ambitions, like Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal and KCR. With no significant presence outside Bengal and Meghalaya, Mamata lacks the moral right to lead any front in a hung parliament scenario. Leaders nursing prime ministerial ambitions may not accept her as leader.
This is where numbers matter. The TMC hopes to be in the reckoning if it bags 40-odd seats in Bengal. However, it is a tall task. The by-poll results show that the Congress and Left alliance could make some dent in her minority and poor/lower socio-economic class vote bank in 2024. So, the TMC will primarily bank on invoking the Bengali pride during the polls.
The Left parties are likely to play a role in the formation of any non-BJP, non-Congress government, and the fact that the TMC and CPM have been at odds for the past 25 years greatly weakens Mamata’s case.
The TMC may have to rely heavily on Lady Luck to smile on Mamata in a post-poll scenario. The TMC’s big hope is that in case of a hung parliament, Mamata emerges as the consensus or compromise candidate, like Janata Dal’s Deve Gowda in 1996. If Janata Dal can have a PM with 46 seats in 1996, why not Mamata in 2024?
But the TMC needs to sweep Bengal to bolster Mamata’s claim to the top job. It has to be on the Top 3 podium of parties, seat-wise, in 2024 at any cost. Hence it is in the party’s interest to focus in their own backyard rather than hop across the country. It is time to go local rather than national.
(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar he was a corporate and investment banker.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.